retrofuturism and mental illness
Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac (2018) is a visual journey that takes us along multiple planes of expedition. Leading separate lives in the same retro-futuristic universe, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) are involved in the latter stages of a pharmaceutical trial for a drug that strives to rid the mind of trauma and disorder, yet Annie and Owen continually find themselves connected as the trial removes them further and further from their known realities. Each episode takes its audience through allegorical storylines that in their isolation begin to unify midway through the series, as they begin to coexist as a side effect of the trial and of a deeper bond between the two protagonists. The episodes, Annie and Owen and the characters they conceptualise represent some of the ways we see and try to understand mental illness and human connection.
As the series progresses, the pharmaceutical trial becomes limited as the setting to which all characters are tethered, an important backdrop but a backdrop all the same. The more realised setting and the more striking sites of exploration are the fragmented stories that are manifest during the drug experiences, the ones that somehow connect Annie and Owen on their respective ‘reflections’ and evidence the system’s refusal to keep the characters separate.
The series as a whole is (deliberately or not) an attempt at a visual display of how mental illness is complex, to say the least. Even in this futuristic universe, Maniac seems to suggest that pharmacy and psychotherapy are far from successful at navigating the intricacies of the mind. Within its sci-fi realm, including the retrofuturism in the early episodes such as the AdBuddys, Maniac moves beyond sci-fi as sci-fi for its own sake. We instead begin to simultaneously orient sci-fi alongside its exploration of mental illness, almost as if the technology within this retrofuturistic world permits and gives structure to a creative vision of mental illness, one that without this alternative universe would be rendered invisible, untracked. Maniac is just that, a vision, a vision through technology and augmented realities and versions of realities that allow characters to navigate, or at least witness, their own psyches within the regimented pharmaceutical trial as a facilitator.
What could be seen as arbitrarily futuristic, or ill-expressed when dealing with issues such as mental illness is up for speculation. Maniac is merited for its unusual and therefore alternative way of presenting mental illnesses. In this overtly fictional universe, can Maniac’s vision be held responsible for its portrayals and potential inaccuracies of mental illness if the vision itself is retro-futuristic? If, despite its warmth and familiarity, the entire universe of Maniac, outside the trial, is somewhat removed from our known reality in which these discussions are held?
The series’ potential flaw is its bundling of many ideas and philosophical takes on the mind. Maniac seems to say a lot about mental illness, encouraging important conversation from its audience. But because of the retrofuturistic setting, it is hard to dichotomise the series’ take on mental illness as nonsensical at best or offensive at worst. Regarding the universe in which it is set, it is unsurprising that Maniac was once a comic. The characters feel caricatured and therefore don’t promote much realism to the audience; nothing feels that ‘realistic’ compared to other series that try to explore mental illness. But perhaps the cartoonishness, the glorified visuals and futuristic technologies that humour the series and what we are given as reality, can actually help us to understand our own. Perhaps the retrofuturistic setting is just an alternative way to stomach these big, impenetrably difficult ideas surrounding mental illness and human connection. The series doesn’t try to compartmentalise the mind into easy, definitive disorders, in fact, it presents us with equally as complicated and abstract technology (Greta the conscious, empathetic computer) as a means to understand the minds of the subjects. In its absurdity there is some reason, Maniac is not condemning current treatments and remedies of mental illness familiar to its audience today, it is showcasing an invented, fictional system (that notably fails) as a cure.
Before the credits roll during the final episode we are given adventurous sentimentality, Annie and Owen chased out of the psychiatric ward car park by security and wardens, driving away in Annie’s father’s (Hank Azaria) truck. With their future unknown, the end rounds off the series with a sense of incompleteness which is endearing and fitting for the show’s overall messages: the trial did not work and no one is ‘fixed’, but people are (either in reality or in their own understanding of it) at least in the process. The trial, then, did achieve something. In its malfunction, creating a duality between Annie and Owen’s reflections, Annie and Owen found each other and thereby ways of coping with the real world, respectively.
A lot is contained in these ten episodes, and perhaps the ideas it explores should have been more fleshed out across longer episodes. But there is a kind of resolution, a cyclical satisfaction when the tenth episode ends. We do not witness an obnoxiously successful riddance of mental illness like the series initially seemed to preclude to, we are instead given a story of connected strangers in a time and place which is distant yet close in subject matter to our own environment, and in that simplification, it is triumphant.